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Puerto Rico gears up to vote in statehood referendum this November

Editor's note: This report incorrectly states that in 2018, the Financial Oversight Management Board for Puerto Rico slashed the commonwealth’s budget by a third. Though the 2018 board-certified fiscal plan mandated expenditure cuts across state agencies over the next six years, the commonwealth’s budget for fiscal year 2019 did not decrease by a third.

In the last four years, Puerto Rico’s billion dollar debt crisis, devastation caused by hurricanes, earthquakes, and the mass exodus of half a million to the mainland, have all thrown the territory’s relationship to the U.S. in the national spotlight. This November, Puerto Ricans will vote in the statehood referendum of 2020, which asks a question that has been at the heart of Puerto Rican politics for decades: Should the territory be admitted to the union as a state? Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Because they are residents of a U.S. territory when Puerto Ricans head to the island's polls on November 3rd, they will not be able to vote for president. What they will be voting on is a referendum for Puerto Rican statehood and whether they should be admitted to the union.

    In the last four years, Puerto Rico has had a $ 72 billion debt crisis, devastating hurricanes and earthquakes, and half a million Puerto Ricans have left for the U.S. mainland. All these factors are forcing a closer look at the relationship.

    NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has more.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Resident commissioner Jennifer González-Colón represents Puerto Rico in Congress and is the first woman in history to hold the position.

  • Jennifer González-Colón:

    Why we are fighting for equality and democracy around the world but you still do have in your backyard, the oldest colony. And that's Puerto Rico.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    : Her party, the New Progressive Party, currently holds the governorship on the island and organized the referendum for statehood.

  • Jennifer González-Colón:

    And it will be the first time we will have a direct question using the same model, the same ballot that was used in Alaska and Hawaii. And that should trigger a movement in Congress.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Trigger a movement because currently, González-Colón has limited voting power in Congress, which she says serves as a metaphor for how the island's government operates under its current political status.

    Because Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory, Congress can override the island's laws. And Puerto Ricans receive disparate Medicaid and nutritional assistance funding.

  • Jennifer González-Colón:

    More than 47% of the island is under the poverty level line, most of them women and children. And many of the reasons for this is that there are different kinds of formulas for allocating funds to the territories.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    And like millions of U.S. citizens who live on the five U.S. territorial islands, they cannot vote in the November presidential election.

  •  Jennifer González-Colón:

    Many Puerto Ricans have fought in all the theaters of war. There is the blood of a lot of Puerto Ricans that came back in a casket with an American flag, an American flag with 50 stars, but not one representing them or the state of Puerto Rico.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In 2018, in response to the island's debt crisis, a congressionally appointed fiscal control board announced sweeping austerity measures in Puerto Rico that slashed the local government's budget by a third.

    In July, the board suspended those cuts for one year, as the territory struggles to recover from hurricanes, earthquakes and the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Verónica Noriega Rodríguez and Amira Odeh are two climate activists in Puerto Rico.

  • Verónica Noriega Rodríguez:

    This relationship stops us from making our own decisions about what affects us as Puerto Ricans. We feel powerless and I'm speaking from my perspective as a youth.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Odeh believes most mainland Americans don't understand the nuances of Puerto Rico's relationship to the U.S.

  • Amira Odeh:

    Like they always talk about poverty or corruption or in general just how bad things are here. But they never explain the historical causes of why that is.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Representative González-Colón has co-sponsored a bipartisan bill that calls upon Congress and the president to take action next year. If Puerto Ricans vote for statehood in November, it will be the 6th time in history that Puerto Rican's vote on the question regarding the territory's relationship to the U.S.

  • Pedro Caban:

    It's not going to have any impact whatsoever.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Pedro Caban is a professor of Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino Studies at the University at Albany who researches what he calls Puerto Rico's status as a "colonial state." Caban says this year's status vote will not lead to a change for the territory, just like previous referendums.

  • Pedro Caban:

    I would argue that the fundamental objection to granting Puerto Rico statehood is the idea that Puerto Rico would attain remarkable political power. I think it would rank 16 among the 50 states.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    With statehood, Puerto Rico would get five members in the house of representatives and two senators. Caban supports a different idea introduced in Congress last month by Democratic Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velasquez. They propose addressing Puerto Rico's political status by way of a constitutional convention.

  • Pedro Caban:

    There's nothing sacred that says that Puerto Rico has to be within the territorial clause of the Constitution.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In June, the Department of Justice declined to provide funding it had set aside for a Puerto Rican status referendum back in 2014, arguing the results of this year's referendum would favor statehood, since no other status options, such as independence, will be on the ballot.

    Although they are both critical of what they see as the island's colonial status, youth climate activists Odeh and Noriega Rodríguez say the referendum is money wasted and a distraction from much more urgent matters in need of attention.

  • Amira Odeh:

    We're in the middle of a pandemic with hundreds of people dying, thousands sick and they're wasting millions in asking this question over and over again?

  • Veronica Noriega Rodríguez:

    Right now, we youth are calling attention to the fact that Puerto Rico's landfills are being closed and by 2022 we will have no place to put our trash. Three years after Hurricane Maria and you still see people with blue tarps on their homes. This is not the first time we've had a referendum on the colonial status and it hasn't made a difference. We should be spending this money on necessary things like fortifying our electrical system, which we need so desperately.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Why spend the money on this referendum vote right now?

  • Jennifer González-Colón:

    Because actually, that money is going to be an investment. It is. This is like a gatekeeper for many other federal funds that we are not accessing now that can help not just the environment but many other areas. And when you are dealing with civil rights, it is not a money amount, it's not a dollar amount, it's about rights to the people. And that's, you cannot measure that.

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